Saturday, October 11, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 2

Government interference. In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Ayn Rand wrote:
If a detailed, factual study were made of all those instances in the history of American industry which have been used by the statists as an indictment of free enterprise and as an argument in favor of a government-controlled economy, it would be found that the actions blamed on businessmen were caused, necessitated, and made possible only by government intervention in business.

Let’s examine those aspects of the current financial crisis that unquestionably corroborate Rand’s thesis, starting with the government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Back in 1999, financial analyst Doug Noland gave a fascinating lecture entitled “Putting a Coin in the Fuse Box.” (The title is inspired by a phrase used by Alan Greenspan in his Objectivist period to describe the Fed policies that led to the Great Depression.) Nearly ten years ago, Noland saw what the GSEs were up to. They were keeping the credit bubble alive and thriving, flooding the market with a fresh supply of liquidity. As Noland explains:
[I]n the midst of financial crisis and dislocation in the mortgage securities market, mortgage rates dropped dramatically as Fannie & Freddie incited an historic refinancing boom. Fannie & Freddie, with their implied government debt guarantees, were able to borrow easily, largely from the money markets, and ballooned their balance sheets with new mortgages. The holders of the old mortgages ... received desperately needed liquidity as households refinanced and Fannie & Freddie bought these new mortgages as well as other debt securities in the open market. During the final three months of 1998, Fannie, Freddie and the Federal Home Loan Bank System together expanded borrowings by almost $130 billion.

Admittedly, this had both the look and feel of a true miracle, but in reality this was one of history’s greatest episodes of credit excess. Some may argue, of course, that Fannie and Freddie are not banks and do not create credit. I disagree and see this [as] a critical analytical misconception. Actually, I see Fannie & Freddie as the greatest instigators of credit excess in history. I even go one step further and believe they also create “money.” Consider: as these institutions borrow aggressively from money market funds ... they exchange their short-term IOUs for existing money stock. This borrowed "money" is then instantly used to purchase financial assets. Importantly, this "money" remains within the financial system where Fannie and Freddie can borrow it again and again, repeatedly replacing it with additional IOUs, thus increasing total money market assets. The money just spins around the system as the amount of debt multiplies. Actually, this mechanism works much like the old bank multiplier effect from econ 101, except for one crucial difference. Since Fannie and Freddie liabilities are not subject to reserve requirements, these institutions can virtually create an "infinite multiplier effect."

Here is an obvious example of the pernicious effect of government in the economy. Since no one believes that the government will allow a GSE to go out of business, such corporations are not beholden to market discipline—with cataclysmic results, as we’ve seen in recent months.

Another pernicious effect of government is the implementation, through various legal and tax devices, of incentives that work against rational decision making. The government wants more people to own homes. After all, homeowners make better citizens. So the government pressures the GSEs and other lending institutions into lowering lending standards. Of course, this winds up having the deplorable effect of increasing the amount of bad credit flooding the economy. Examples of this sorts mal-incentives could be multiplied endlessly.

One final example that could be used to bolster Rand’s thesis is the Fed. Again to quote Doug Noland:

Like the Fed of the 1920s, the 1990s Fed has repeatedly put "Coins in the Fuse Box" over what I see as a "Persistent Financial Crisis" going back to the 1987 Stock Market crash. I believe this post-crash accommodation helped foster the real estate bubbles in the Northeast and California, the junk bond fiasco, the S&L debacle and other excesses from the late 80s….And it was during the early 1990’s that the Greenspan Fed "let their guard down" and began to lose control of the financial system. First, the Fed’s aggressive move to bailout the bankers created a big moral hazard issue. Second, with short-term rates plummeting, an opportunistic Wall Street went into what I call "harvesting asset mode," inciting a major shift of funds from bank deposits to mutual funds, money market funds, and securities, thus sowing the seeds for today’s financial bubble. Third, by pushing Fed Funds to 3% and creating an unusually steep yield curve, the Fed incited unprecedented credit market speculation, thus playing a major role in the proliferation of both leveraged speculation and its close sibling, derivatives. After all, 3% Fed funds were a godsend for the hedge funds, Wall Street proprietary traders, and derivative players.

Fourth, ultra-easy money fostered leveraged speculation in high-yield emerging debt markets. And fifth, a very important but unappreciated factor, was the emergence of Wall Street inspired non-bank financial companies and the incredible growth of the asset-backed securities market. As an aside, it was in 1991, during the darkest days for the banks, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac began to aggressively expand their balance sheets. Yet, Greenspan acquiesced, apparently more focused on the "Strong Headwinds" of an impaired US banking system that he saw as restricting the US economic recovery. He was loose and Wall Street took full advantage. The explosion of non-bank financial credit had begun and the Fed was quickly losing control.

1 comment:

Damien said...


It is true that government often meddles in places it does not belong.